No. 125

Labor needs to listen to Martin Ferguson and support jobs

“Men and women of the ACTU!”

STONE the crows! As if Labor isn’t in enough strife, party hardheads are calling comrades names!

On Tuesday last, senior ministers Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean got stuck into union leaders, accusing them of “strangling the resources boom and threatening billions of dollars in projects by placing short-term wages gain over long-term wealth creation”.[i]

NSW State Secretary Sam Dastyari has decided to bring on a blue by demanding NSW and (by implication) other states preference the Greens last at the next national election.[ii] Yes those Greens – the ones who keep the Gillard Government in power and provide a spiritual home away from home for the Labor left, just as the Coms used to do.

And South Australian backbencher Nick Champion argues the party must increase outsiders’ involvement in pre-selections and the policy process. [iii]

What’s got into them? Sanity, that’s what. They all understand that Labor has to do more than protect insiders’ interests to form a majority government in Canberra at the next election (alright, the one after that).

The fate of NSW Labor demonstrates what happens when ministries govern for their mates. Sure, caucus sacking Maurice Iemma when he tried to serve the people not the party by privatising the electricity system pleased the power unions. However, it made clear to the community that Labor governed for its loyalists alone.[iv]

And it’s always easy for insiders to forget the party is not a career path.

In May 2011, then Tasmanian Education, Police and Childrens Service Minister Lin Thorp was defeated in the Legislative Council elections. Ms Thorp’s loss came after her department mishandled a child prostitution case.[v]

She was not in limbo for long, recently replacing the retiring Nick Sherry in the Senate.

Ms Thorp will undoubtedly do her best for the people of Tasmania and she certainly is the party’s popular choice, winning the votes of 89 per cent of the 581 members who decided on Sherry’s successor.[vi] But a fresh face she isn’t.

The same thing could occur in Victoria where there is a scramble to find a seat for factional leader David Feeney, at risk of losing his Senate spot at the next election.[vii]

What the voters taketh away the party improves on.

So who do the hard heads want Labor to engage with to broaden the gene-pool of participants, even players, to stop the party ossifying as an agency of union leaders, public sector workers and various ginger groups who can’t come at the Greens?

According to Champion, the challenge is to bring diverse groups into the tent – “Labor’s governing constituency is increasingly diverse, including working-class suburban voters, inner-city progressives, high income earners, and many migrants communities”.

The ministers want union leaders who take a longer-view and consider long-term productivity ahead of pay rises for their members. “I think there is a message to all of us including some elements of the union movement – if we’re not very careful, current members will do exceptionally well, but future members in 10 to 20 years’ time will miss out,” Mr. Ferguson says. [viii]

Up to a point, State Secretary Copper.

With the exception of “working class suburban voters”, Mr Champion’s coalition consists of comrades complicit in creating Labor’s present crisis. “Inner city progressives” focus on morally important issues – gay marriage, asylum seeker rights, the republic, indigenous recognition in the Constitution – which do not swing seats.

“High income earners” is a synonym for public sector workers in the human rights industry who use their social media expertise plus ease of access to the ABC and opinion pages of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to endlessly instruct Labor.

As for “many migrant communities”, anybody who remembers the ethnic branch-stacks of the 1990s knows how politics is played among first generation settler communities, where people stick together on the assumption that the more of their leaders who prosper politically the better it is for them all.

Champion’s proposal would leave the party pretty much where it is in terms of influencers outside the peak unions and with the same ideas that dominate debate now.

The ministers are much more on the money – while they did not state it, the inevitable conclusion of their argument is that Labor needs union allies who work in the national, not sectional, interest.

It is left to Mr Dastyari to clearly make the case – that Labor must speak for the generality of Australians. As van Onselen reported on Saturday, the NSW state secretary will argue at the weekend party conference, “that ‘extreme elements’ of the Greens’ social and economic agenda ‘are at odds with the values and needs of many Labor voters”.[ix]

There is nothing new in the way Labor has abandoned attempting to enunciate a narrative based on economic growth and equal opportunity for all Australians in favour of a coalition of interest groups. It began in the 1990s when the Hawke and Keating governments stitched together coalitions based on multiculturalism, environmental activism, even the arts, to compensate for a loss of broad based support among us ordinary people.[x]

It was, and is, a strategy for a party without unifying ideas or broad policy appeal.  But it need not be this way. In 2007, Labor’s promise to re-regulate working conditions won the election because it appealed to the mass of electors who, as Christine Jackman puts it, were “increasingly likely to know someone – often a teenage child or grandchild – who had been told they wouldn’t get the job unless they worked several ‘training’ shifts without pay or signed away their rights to a meal break after a certain number of hours”. [xi]

Ironically, industrial relations change turned out to be a victory for Labor insiders, rather than ordinary electors, enhancing the authority of peak union officials, rather than protecting the most vulnerable of workers, such as kids with after school jobs. Union officials fought for years in the arbitration commission, sorry Fair Work Australia, to stop young casuals working short shifts, less it unsettle award arrangements.[xii]

And that’s the party’s problem; it ignores everybody who does not belong to an insider interest group.

It’s time for Labor to listen to the likes of Champion and Ferguson, Dastyari and Crean and focus on the people who elect majority governments – voters interested in job generating economic growth and opportunities for their children. People without industrial power and who are not clients of a special interest.

Where Gough Whitlam spoke to “the men and women of Australia” his successors now speak to, and for, the people who lead the lobbies.

And a campaign launch that begins “men and women of the ACTU, Australian Education Union, Australian Conservation Foundation and ACOSS,” sends a clear signal – but not one that appeals to the men and women who decide who governs us.


[i] Joe Kelly and Annabel Hepworth, “Productivity first, not wages: Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson turn on union family,” The Australian, July 3

[ii] Peter van Onselen, “Labor’s faceless men target Greens without consulting PM,” The Australian, July 7

[iii] Nick Champion, “There are seven ways to save the Labor Party and set the standard,” The Australian, June 26

[iv] Simon Benson, Betrayal: the underbelly of Australian Labor (Sydney, 2010)

[v] AAP, “Tasmanian minister Lin Thorp loses seat in upper house elections,” The Australian, May 9

[vi] ABC News, “Former Labor minister Lin Thorp to join Senate,” June 16 @ www.abc.net.au/news/2012-06-15/former-labor-minister-returns-to-politics/4074194 recovered on July 8

[vii] John Ferguson, “One of Gillard’s ‘faceless men’ backed HSU leader,” The Australian July 5

[viii] Ben Packham, “Unions risk killing mining investment, warn Labor’s Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean,” The Australian, July 2

[ix] van Onselen, ibid

[x] Bob Hawke, “National agenda for a multicultural Australia,” (1989) @ www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/multicultural/agenda/agenda89/foreword.htm recovered on July 8, Nick Economou, “Back on the ‘issues attention cycle’: Labor and environment policy from Hawke to Rudd,” @ http://apsa2010.com.au/full-papers/pdf/APSA2010_0057.pdf recovered on July 8, Department of Communication and the Arts, “ Creative nation: Commonwealth cultural policy” (October 1994) @ http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/21336/20031011-0000/www.nla.gov.au/creative.nation/contents.html recovered on July 8

[xi] Christine Jackman, Inside Kevin 07: The people, the plan, the prize (Melbourne, 2008) 139

[xii] Ewin Hannan, “After-school jobs back with Fair Work victory,” The Australian, June 21 2011

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